Beehive Fences Protect Crops from African Elephants

How do you stop a 15,000-pound elephant? Scientists are now researching just that, and the answer may come from an unlikely, yet natural, source – honeybees. With the incidence of human-elephant conflict on the rise in Kenya, where Savannah elephants frequently raid and destroy valuable food crops, researchers are experimenting with beehive fences – wooden fences adorned with honeybee hives.

Why Beehive Fences?

Based on a casual observation that elephants avoid trees with beehives, scientists conducted a pilot study using unoccupied beehive fences as a deterrent. The results were so promising that the study has now been expanded with active hives, and may hold promise for ending the long-term conflict in a natural way that will protect both the elephants and the crops.

beehive fences

Although scientists aren’t really sure why elephants avoid beehives, it may be due to a memory of being stung in the past. Image credit: Sourav Bhowmick

Status of African Elephants

While African elephant population estimates range from 470,000 to 690,000, individual populations in some areas are endangered, and the overall population status is determined as “vulnerable.” The savannah elephant, one of two subspecies, thrives in the plains and bushlands of eastern and southern Africa. In Kenya, located in east-central Africa, there is a growing concern for the protection of the species, as farmers often shoot or poison the elephants to protect their crops.

beehive fences

Although it may seem that elephant populations are stable in east Africa, they are actually declining rapidly due to poaching and animal/human conflict. Image credit: Greg Todd

Testing the Beehive Fences Theory

The research was born from an observation in 2002 by zoologist Fritz Vollrath of the University of Oxford, that elephants avoided trees that contained beehives. Using this knowledge, Vollrath and a group of colleagues, along with support from Save the Elephants, enlisted the cooperation of two local farmers whose crops were often raided by elephants. They conducted a pilot study that involved building wooden fences strewn with empty honeybee hives around one side of the test property. The control farm, in close proximity, was left unfenced.

beehive fences

These Kenyan women are proud of their 4-acre plot of land where they grow corn, avocados, oranges and other vegetables. But one rogue elephant could destroy the whole thing in just a few minutes. Image credit: McKay Savage

The results were very promising. Over the course of the six-week study, a total of 38 individual elephants raided the property with beehive fences in seven separate raids. This compared to the unfenced property, where 95 individuals raided that field on 13 different occasions. Using the logic that occupied hives should be even more of a deterrent, the study has been expanded to include 1,700 meters of active beehive fencing. Not only it is hoped that this will further deter the elephants, but it will provide local villages with good supplies of nutrient-rich honey as well.

Although it is not known for sure why elephants are so weary of bees, it is likely that once elephants are stung on the most vulnerable parts of the bodies – around the eyes and inside their trunks, they remember it forever. This anti-bee conditioning, grounded in the endearing characteristic of an elephant’s lifelong memory, may have paved the way for one of the most effective, natural pesticides currently in use – beehive fences.

24 Comments

  1. What an interesting way to test out crop protection. I am curious how well this helps and I can imagine it being difficult to keep elephants out of crops, they are huge! Glad you shared this, I find subjects like this very intriguing.

  2. Reading this post I remember the saying that small but terrible. This is so interesting. Some people won’t believe that but as scientists proved that it is true. Well thank goodness.

  3. Science is seriously so cool! What a great way to protect elephants with an added benefit of providing honey. I know I’d be deterred by a honeybee nest. Maybe I’m more like an elephant than I realized.

  4. This research is very helpful to all the Africans who are sicked for this elephants. Such a great solution for this big problems. Now they can plant and grow their crops peacefully.

  5. I understand the frustration of the farmers. Indeed, how can you stop a 15000 pound animal from eating your crops! I did not know that beehives could be a deterrent. That is good news for the farmers!

  6. Wow. What an amazing discovery! This is really going to help the farmers protect their crops and give them an additional source of income from the honey the bees would produce.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *